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Cougar talk offers paws for thought

Although suburban deer can be a threat to motorists and a nuisance for homeowners trying to cultivate ornamental and edible plants, I enjoy their occasional visits to my yard.
No matter how often it occurs, Iím transfixed by the sight of them ó usually, at least two or three ó emerging silently from the trees and stealthily approaching the stunted apple trees, the oakleaf hydrangea, the azaleas, the hostas or whatever else appears on the seasonal deer buffet. They come like over-caffeinated cat burglars, all twitchy ears and trembly legs, ready to make a frantic dash for cover if a door creaks or a chair scrapes on the deck.
It makes for a lovely tableau, especially on drizzly or foggy mornings when itís easy to imagine Iím deep in some mountain forest, rather than a few miles outside Salisburyís city limits.
But what if a cougar suddenly interrupted the scene by ripping into a doeís jugular or dragging down a wall-eyed fawn?
That disquieting vision keeps looping through my mind, inspired by a recent talk wilderness conservationist Dave Foreman gave at the Center for the Environment at Catawba College. Foreman was cofounder of Earth First! and is now executive director of The Rewilding Institute, a non-profit that promotes wilderness conservation and restoration on a large scale. The heart of Foremanís vision is creation of the North American Wildlands Network, which would knit together four continent-spanning ěwildways,î including swaths of the Appalachian and Adirondack mountains. For a full explanation of the rewilding movement, youíll need to dip into the instituteís website (http://rewilding.org/rewildit/). A key part of the rewilding vision ó the part that made me sit up straight and pay attention ó is the restoration of big carnivores like wolves and cougars.
In fact, Foreman holds that restoration of big predator cats is a key piece of ěrewildingî the eastern United States, or at least that portion of it that roughly tracks the Appalachian Trail.
ěI think the No. 1 thing we need in the East is the cougar,î he said, noting that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had studied such a project a quarter century ago and even identified potential habitats. ěBut nothing really came of it.î
Obvously, Foreman isnít advocating that mountain lions be turned loose on suburbia. The idea is to connect extensive tracts of natural areas ó including existing forests and wilderness areas ó so that wolves, elk, cougars and such would have room to roam without encroaching on the developed world. As he points out, this reintroduction of species has occurred in parts of the West, albeit not without human-animal conflicts.
In one of his blog postings, Foreman acknowledges the denser development in the East makes rewilding more problematical but says itís ěnot too farfetched a dream to cobble together a Great Wildway along the Appalachians and bring back key wildlife such as cougar, red wolves, Algonquin wolves, bison, elk, wolverines, lynx, and other missing wildeors.î
As an unapologetic tree-hugger, wildlife lover and supporter of preserving natural lands, Iím sympathetic to Foremanís mission. I like the idea of big cats roaming wilderness areas. I donít doubt those large carnivores are important to the overall balance of nature, as North Carolinaís deer population shows, and mountain lions apparently are secretive creatures who shun human contact. But just as bears and wolves donít always stay within the confines of their designated refuges, I suspect the same would be true for cougars. True wildness defies containment. In fact, after Foremanís talk, a couple of people in the audience reported possible cougar sightings. (Presumably, this would not be the eastern cougar, recently declared officially extinct, although some will dispute its final demise).
I love the idea of having nature outside my back door. I love the idea that bald eagles ó once feared on the flight path to extinction ó now nest on the shores of nearby lakes. I love the idea that restoration programs are returning red foxes, gray wolves, bison and elk to wild areas of North Carolina and other states. When we lose these species, we lose part of the natural coordinates locating our own unique place in the order of things.
But as for having a cougar in the backyard, well, thatís a different animal entirely. Restoration of the wild kingdom where the big carnivores rule is an intriguing idea, but Iíll confess that as much as I may embrace the concept of wilderness, I want it on my own terms.
That, Iím sure Foreman would tell me, is part of the problem.

Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.

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